NGOs reinvent themselves with Covid but fear for the future
NGOs’ programmes have been severely disrupted by COVID-19, yet budgets and employment have been preserved for now, according to a recent survey of NGOs
1 Jun 2021

One year after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, 108 Geneva-based NGOs responded to a survey conducted in March 2021 by the International Geneva Welcome Centre (CAGI) in collaboration with the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG).

Only a minority of NGOs consider the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on their operations to be severe and to represent a significant risk for the organization for the time being. Yet results from the survey also reveal that the COVID-19 pandemic presented a range of challenges to NGOs’ operational capacities, forcing them to close, scale back and adapt their programs.

Agility and online shift

Despite the challenging context, NGOs managed to adapt and respond to growing needs by adopting new ways of working and accelerating their digitization processes. Thanks to their flexibility and resilience, Geneva-based NGOs effectively transitioned to online platforms, even reporting an increase in outreach and participation in their activities and the discussions taking place in Geneva.

This was highlighted by Ms. Lidiya Grigoreva, NGO Liaison Officer at the United Nations Office at Geneva, who noted (in a panel debate on 22 April 2021 discussing the survey’s results: cutt.ly/DbWOZEx) a 10% increase in the number of NGOs accredited to UNOG in 2020 despite the inability to attend in-person meetings at the Palais des Nations.

An eagerness to return to in-person interactions

Although the relationships between international organizations and NGOs improved over time in the COVID-19 context – varying greatly among international organizations – this greater reliance on digital connectivity came at a cost of a lower impact and capacity to influence for NGOs.

It is not surprising to note that NGOs share a marked enthusiasm for resumption of in-person meetings and conferences in Geneva. While the future of International Geneva conferences and discussions is undoubtedly heading towards hybrid settings, NGOs insist that digital interactions will never fully replace in-person interactions, which are crucial for informing, sensitizing and lobbying other stakeholders of International Geneva.

No massive drop in revenues for the sector (so far)

Results from the survey show the different realities that NGOs had to face with regard to the impact of the pandemic on their finances. Thirty-seven percent of NGOs suffered a decrease in revenues in 2020 while a quarter experienced an increase in their revenues compared to 2019. Private donors have stepped in to support the work of NGOs – especially in the context of the response to COVID-19 – while most Governments maintained their funding levels and showed flexibility in the allocations of funds.

Unsurprisingly, however, revenues from commercial activities have dropped sharply since the outbreak of the crisis.

There were also some very critical situations for NGOs who faced a massive drop in their revenues, which jeopardized their programs and even put their existence or their presence in Geneva at risk.

Employment preserved for now

As seen in a previous impact survey conducted in May 2020, most organizations did not request or were unable to access the schemes put in place by the Swiss public authorities in the context of COVID-19.

Explanations may lie in the fact that those schemes were not adapted to the NGOs’ funding and business models and that many organizations faced an increased workload in order to address the additional needs triggered by the pandemic.

Yet, 30% of NGOs (mainly medium and large organizations) did apply to furlough some of their staff under the Unemployment Benefit Scheme (RHT) put in place by the Swiss authorities.

Thanks to the RHT and their relatively stable budgets, only 20% of NGOs reduced their staff in 2020 and 90% plan to keep or increase their staffing in 2021. It is worth noting that a large number of NGOs are nimble, small or medium entities.

A delayed snowball effect?

In what could seem at first rather surprising, given the relatively reassuring survey results and the capacity of NGOs to adapt and remain relevant, NGOs nevertheless raised serious concerns when asked about the future, sharing a general fear that the Geneva ecosystem may be put at risk.

Given that in the past NGOs have experienced financial and national budgetary crises after a certain length of time, the donors’ response will be key to the sustainability of the sector.

The role of Geneva-based international NGOs in the near future will also be defined by the International Geneva ecosystem’s capacity to reinvent itself in this new and hybrid reality and to provide civil society actors, both in Geneva and at the local level, with the ability to engage in a meaningful manner. The full narrative report of the survey can be downloaded on this page: www.cagi.ch/en/ngo/NGO-COVID19-SURVEY.php

* Julien Beauvallet est responsable du Service ONG au CAGI.
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